On March 21, 2010 a volcano that had not been active for almost 200 years erupted beside a glacier of the same name, Eyjafjallajökull. Thousands of small earthquakes had disturbed the area for over a month. Officials sent phone messages to 450 local residents urging them to evacuate immediately as it was impossible to predict what would happen next.
There were grave concerns that the eruption could trigger an even bigger eruption at the nearby Karla volcano, causing the icecap to melt resulting in widespread flooding and possible explosive blasts. Farmers were forced to leave their livestock behind in the emergency and the possible release of caustic gases would put the animals at risk.
All domestic flights were cancelled despite the fact that the skies were clear in Reykjavik, due to concerns that the ash cloud might damage aircraft engines. Some flights due to arrive from the US were turned back. Hundreds of people were forced to wait for hours for their outgoing international flights.
Then on April 14th a new eruption started, shooting a plume of steam and ash nearly 9km into the air from the crater 200m under the ice at the glacier. The fact that the volcano sits directly under the jet stream meant that the fine, glass-rich ash could be carried in a southeasterly direction towards mainland Europe. For a period of six days, air traffic was disrupted, something not seen since the Second World War.
By May 21, 2010 there was little or no ash or lava being produced and in October it was determined that the second eruption was officially over. An estimated 250 million cubic meters of ash had been ejected from the eruption.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
Arriving back at our guesthouse after our delicious Nepalese meal, we discovered that another couple had moved into the room next to ours. They were surfing the internet looking at the weather reports for the coming days, but stopped to chat with us. We learned that they had just finished a three-week tour of Iceland, driving around the island in a counterclockwise direction, and taking lots of small detours to explore out of the way places. They had endured terrible weather conditions, but still spoke highly of all that they had seen.
They seconded the advice that Adia and Geoff had given us; that there was little to see along the far eastern coast but the north and south coasts were not to be missed. We had planned to set off north the next morning for Akureyri, but after checking the weather reports, we could see that the south coast had a far better forecast for the coming days, and then the north coast was due for some sunny weather immediately after that.
For that reason, we changed our plans and the next morning saw us retracing some of the route we had taken back from our Golden Circle trip the previous day, hitting new territory after passing near the town of Eyrarbakki once again. The sun was shining, the skies were crystal clear and it seemed that a little piece of heaven lay before us.
We didn’t take the time to stop at Hveragerði to have a look at the acres of greenhouses that are heated by hot water from the nearby volcanic hot springs. We had made a plan to drive all the way to the iceberg lagoon at Jökulsárlón, and then back to the small town of Vik to stay the night. We had a long drive ahead of us, and there was little time to dawdle.
However, I have always been very fond of waterfalls, never having seen enough to dull my appetite for them, so we did make a quick stop at Seljalandsfoss to see the falls there. We were back on the road in less than 15 minutes; it was a good chance to stretch our legs a little. As we continued eastward, we found ourselves on a narrow stretch of land between the sea and a towering ridge on our left. It felt remote and very wild.
Adia and Geoff had passed along their excellent road map of Iceland, and though there is only one main highway that extends along the southern coast, I studied it carefully because of the vast glaciers we were nearing. I could see the name of the volcano that had erupted the previous year and realized for the first time that it was so near to the coastline where we were travelling. I happened to take my eyes off the map just long enough, and at just the right moment, to spot a small building with the name of the volcano emblazoned in large letters on the side facing the highway. It appeared to be a visitor’s center of some sort.
I asked Anil to stop quickly and turn around because I was interested in learning more about the volcano that had caused us some concern of our own the previous year. We had been in Spain, coming to the end of our fifth year of retirement travels. Adia had joined us for the previous ten days and we were all a little anxious as to whether our flights home would be affected by the enduring ash cloud. We had watched the news reports each day with keen interest.
When we entered the visitor’s center, we learned that a film had just started outlining the progress of the volcano’s activity and the impact it had had on the dairy farm on the opposite side of the road. The English version of the film was been screened, so we slipped in to watch it. It was a ‘up close and personal’ account of the eruption, stunningly filmed and produced and we came out with a new appreciation of the power of nature and of the ‘true grit’ of the Icelandic people.
We had rushed into see the film having agreed to pay the admission once it was over, and when I approached the cash desk I realized that we were speaking to the very woman who had been the focus of the film. She was the narrator, describing in detail the events leading up to the eruption and the aftermath of tons of ash that buried their home, livestock sheds and farm fields.
I asked her how it was that she was able to get professional quality footage of the volcano and the damage it caused on their property. She explained that when the trouble first started, she noticed a cameraman standing at the gate to their farm and she went out to speak with him. She had the foresight to ask him to return over the course of the coming days and weeks, to film the events as they unfolded.
Not knowing whether their farm would be completely destroyed, whether their herd of 60 dairy cows and large flock of sheep would survive, she wanted to record everything possible for her children and grandchildren. In the end, the film shows how they managed to save all their livestock, to repair the damage caused by the flooding and to harvest a crop during the summer of 2011, just a few weeks before our arrival.
After all they had been through, they were still determined to remain on their farm, and an old shed near the highway had been transformed into a visitor’s centre allowing travellers to learn more about the eruption and to take home a souvenir of the lava, a gift bag of ash, or a t-shirt explaining how to say the name of the almost unpronounceable volcano.
If you are interested on a written report of their experiences, please have a look at this link: The Guardian.
It had been a most interesting stop, but it was time to be on our way once again. We drove on with the intention of stopping at another waterfall, this one even more dramatic, in order to view the falls and eat our picnic lunch. Skogafoss is considered one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland, and is easily accessible from the highway. There is a small campground at its base, so there are usually other people around. However, when we arrived, it was almost deserted so we had the pleasure of enjoying it undisturbed.
With the proper footwear, it’s possible to walk on a small path and stand behind the falls and look out through the pounding water, falling from 60m above. We walked across the black lava sand leading to the pool at the base of the falls, but it was clear the rocks were too slippery for us to attempt the trail to the rear of the falls. We were so very close though and felt the power of the falls and the spray on our faces. As we turned to head back to our car, the sun shone at just the right angle to form a brilliant rainbow.
We set off once again, and for the next few hours we passed through an ever-changing landscape as we rounded the base of coastal mountains and crossed the floodplains and lava fields created by age-old eruptions. Here and there we encountered minute villages and the odd farm or two but it was the glaciers in the distance that held us enthralled.
One might think that as Canadians we would be somewhat inured to the sight of vast glaciers, after all we live within striking distance of the world-famous Columbia Icefields and beautiful Lake Louise in the Rocky Mountains. However, words cannot describe how amazing it was when the arms of the glaciers came into view in the distance. The ice extends almost to the highway itself and we were treated to the sight of small farms and green fields in contrast to the snow-white ice.
At last we reached our destination, the lagoon filled with icebergs, calved off from yet another glacier, with another unpronounceable name. I have written about our experiences there in a separate journal entry in order to give it its due. We lingered in the area far longer than we should have, but eventually pulled ourselves away and turned back westward and retraced our steps as the sun dipped lower in the sky.
We wanted to reach the town of Vik before dark, as it was one of the few places along the southern coast that boasted a few hotels where one could stay for the night. We were surprised that the daylight lasted as long as it did, there was still enough light at 7:30pm to take a few photos of the remarkable vegetation that carpeted the lava fields near the sea.